Panama Rain

 

 

The early morning mist rises through the jungle canopy and sets the howler monkeys off. The locals say that they only set up this incredible Godzilla-esque roar when it is going to rain. My eye flickers to a flash of blue in the shadows and I catch sight of a better omen: a giant blue morpho butterfly flutters past, looking like the patch of fallen heaven that the ancient Mayans thought it to be. Farther along the trail a toucan sets up its strange, froglike croaking call as a troop of tiny squirrel monkeys swoop past. Within a few minutes we have also added agouti (like a cross between a deer and a giant rat) and coati to our sightings.

 

It feels like we are in pristine rainforest, a million miles from the heat and bustle of Panama City. In fact, if I listen carefully I can hear the drone of the rush-hour traffic jam and, where the canopy thins on the hillside, I can easily gaze out to the skyscrapers of Panama’s banking zone. The 232 hectare Metropolitan Natural Park is unique as an example of pristine jungle that exist within the boundaries of a major city. Just fifteen minutes from downtown Panama City (and five minutes from the shanties of one of the worst slum districts) you find a wilderness where ocelot prowl and anteaters forage. As a habitat to 284 different trees and 322 animal species, Parque Natural Metropolitano provides the perfect introduction to the Latin American rainforest. In fact it is part of a wilderness corridor that stretches right along the Canal almost to the Caribbean ocean, fifty miles away. It was not so far from here that a jaguar was seen actually swimming across the Canal itself.


Lilmarie de León and Rafael Gómez have agreed to guide me here. They and their team at the research and animal rescue centre have worked hard in the community so that the local people have built up a respect for this area and almost see themselves as unofficial rangers. Few poachers would risk the enmity of this particular quarter by hunting in the Metropolitan Park.


We spend several hours trekking through the rainforest but as the day progresses the sky begins to darken. It seems that the howlers were right about the rain after all. By the time we reach the crest of the hill slanting sheets are already falling like a curtain across the view of the canal. In the other direction the skyscrapers are fast dissolving in the mist. Within minutes we are thoroughly drenched by the first real storm of the new rainy season and by the time we get back to the research centre the whole area seems to have been converted into a river. It is not called the rainforest for nothing.


…At the very moment that we are emerging sodden from the jungle an old taxi driver called Danny Lopez is driving through El Chorillo. This barrio is routinely known as the Red Zone: pretty much a demilitarised zone where even the police do their best not to get too involved unless it is strictly necessary. My hotel is just on the edge of this slum though and I have to pass through it several times each day (although always with doors locked and windows up and with the idea that you will stop for nothing).


Danny Lopez told me later that as he was negotiating the growing floodwaters that were already beginning to block most of El Chorillo’s junctions he saw a teenage boy running along the sidewalk with a pistol clutched to his groin, half-hidden. In a moment shots were ringing out in the street from all around. The thud of bullets was drowned out by the rain that hammered on the rusted iron roofs. It seemed to be what the gangs were counting on. They had been waiting for the first hard rains of the wet season for a cover for their shoot out.


The police never even heard about it until later. It turned out to be just another show of force though. Gunshots are not uncommon in El Chorillo. This was just neighbouring gangs anxious to show off their hardware. And it was over fairly quickly without even any casualties.


“It happens often,” Danny told me later. “We were better off in the days of Noriega…he controlled all the guns and drugs himself…anyone who considered themselves a bad guy very quickly ended up floating face down in the sea.”
“…and a few of the good ones too,” I pointed.
“Well yes,” Danny admitted, “…but that was just politics.”


Viva la democracia.

For more information on Metropolitan NP, and Panama in general, check out the Panama Tourism Authority website: www.visitpanama.com

 

 

 

 

By Mark Eveleigh